The polis is a dominant force in scholarship on Greek tragedy, including Euripides’ Medea. This paper addresses the question of whether there is, in fact, a polis (i.e. a Greek-style city-state) in the play.
The polis proper does not often feature in tragedy. Euripides’ Corinth, like many urban centres in tragedy, is a generic palatial settlement ruled by a king. It is not a community of citizens. Creon is a non-constitutional absolute hereditary monarch, and it is a commonplace of tragedy that absolute sole role is antithetical to the idea of the polis.
Medea is exiled, not ostracised; she is never a metic. Her relationships and actions are governed by elite xenia, not citizenship. Thus, though ‘political’ interpretations of Medea are all to the good, polis-centric interpretations become much less attractive once one observes the almost complete absence of the polis from the play.
Is there a polis in Euripides’ Medea?1 That is my title, and that is the question. Nor is it rhetorical: for the last quarter-century or so, the polis – especially the democratic polis – has been a constant presence in studies of Greek tragedy, and it remains an open, productive question whether, how, and to what extent Greek tragedy is or is not political.2 But it is also good to ask, Is this Greek tragedy political? More than that one? How? To what effect?’ Asking whether there is a polis in Euripides’ Medea allows us a fortiori to address the vexed question of what, if anything, the play has to do with Athenian politics; and to address the selection bias at work in studies of more explicitly ‘political’ tragedies.
At one end of the spectrum, Fartzoff asserts that Medea ‘n’offre que peu, ou pas, de considération politique’; ‘cette pièce [est] apparemment l’une des moins politiques d’Euripide’.3 At the other, Luschnig states outright that Medea ‘is recognized as one of Euripides’ most political plays’; a range of scholars have likewise identified Medea as a ‘political’ play which has much to say about the ancient Greek polis.4 In particular, Luschnig marshals Friedrich’s much-cited 1993 essay, ‘Medea apolis’. Drawing on two instances of the word ἄπολις (‘displaced’, ‘homeless’) in Medea, Friedrich argues that Medea’s descent into αὐθάδεια (‘stubbornness’, ‘wilfulness’) dramatizes the crisis of the polis in mid-to-late fifth-century Athens.5 Strictly speaking, however, what Medea dramatizes is Medea’s poisoning of Creon and his daughter, killing of her own children, and flight into exile; there is at least one degree of analogical separation (and arguably more) between that and fifth-century Athenian politics. We would do well to exercise caution around such intellectualizing readings of tragedy.6
Aristophanes’ Dionysus presents as entirely natural the idea that he could bring back a tragic poet to advise, and therefore save, the polis (Ra. 1418-1421); the comic chorus of Frogs likewise sings of advising the the polis and citizens (πολῖται) of Athens (ll. 686-688). Influential as it is, however, this is the tendentious view of one comic character, and it may or may not be applicable to Medea. As Patrick Finglass observes (with reference to Sophocles’ Electra):
If we rid our minds both of the idea that tragedy must have everything to do with the polis, and of the idea that tragedy must have nothing to do with the polis, we can at last begin to appreciate the significance which the polis really plays in an individual drama such as Sophocles’ Electra.7
Thus Finglass returns us to first principles and to the polis itself, and the lesson is salutary. Luschnig, for one, approvingly cites Arrowsmith’s breathless take on Medea: ‘a comprehensive critique of the quality and state of contemporary culture’.8 But cultural critique is not the same thing as political commentary, and the usefulness of ‘political’ as an interpretative category depends in large part on its being conceptually distinct from, say, ‘social’ or ‘cultural’.9 Allan and Kelly criticise excessively restrictive definitions of the ‘political’, citing with disapproval the definition offered by Macleod on Eumenides, that is, ‘concerned with human beings in a polis’.10 They also claim that ‘the Athenians themselves construed the “political” broadly and did not separate politics from other aspects of life’, citing no less an authority than Pericles (Th. 2.40.2). But Pericles, in claiming that ‘the same people look out for private and public matters’, clearly assumes a distinction between τὰ οἰκεῖα (‘private matters’) and τὰ πολιτικά (‘public matters’). Plato’s Socrates likewise assumes a distinction between acting ἰδίᾳ, in one’s own interest, and acting δηµοσίᾳ, in the public interest (e.g., Pl. Ap. 31c4-32e1). When one is talking specifically about tragedy on the Athenian stage, the difference between private life, τὰ πολιτικά, and ‘politics’ broadly construed matters a great deal; Macleod’s narrow definition in fact has much to recommend it. With this in mind, perhaps we might think of τὰ πολιτικά as, specifically, ‘polis-politics’.
It is of course a truism that Greek tragedy in general is polis-centric.11 A shade over half of extant Greek tragedies are set in (or, more often, at) a nucleated settlement in Greece, not to mention those set in the vicinity of one, and the Mycenaean palace-state, in particular Thebes or Argos–Mycenae, could fairly be called the natural setting of Greek tragedy. Yet different population centres in tragedy function differently, including Athens (in Eumenides), Attic demes, Thebes, Argos, Susa, and so on. Even when speakers or singers in a given tragedy appear to espouse some kind of ‘political’ ideology, this need not be thought of as being specifically Athenian, democratic, Greek, or even polis-specific.12 What is more, our emphasis on the polis as the unit of social and political organization has not gone unchallenged: recent scholarship on interstate relations in ancient Greece has stressed the importance of other kinds of polity (ethnos, koinon) and other kinds of network, as well as of non-state actors.13 The key ‘actors’ in tragic plots are likewise connected by an interstate network of reciprocal xenia: Heracles and Theseus, Oedipus and Theseus, Jason and Creon, Medea and Aegeus, and so on. Thus, in Griffith’s view, tragedy is relevant to democracy and reflects (on) democracy, but its orientation is not democratic per se: the tragic milieu is a heroic-monarchical one; tragic oikoi function like elite oikoi; and, of particular relevance to Medea, Pericles’ citizenship law did not leave much of a trace in extant post-451 tragedies.14 All in all, therefore, it seems to me to be still worth asking whether there even is a polis in Medea.
What was a polis, exactly?15 In the restricted technical sense, a polis was a city-state within the city-state culture which flourished in archaic and classical Greece and survived well into the Roman period. The Greek word πόλις had two main spheres of meaning, and the concept of the polis was effectively two things at once: a ‘large nucleated settlement, i.e. a city’ and ‘an institutionalised political community, i.e. a state’.16 Hence the word ‘city-state’. In Blok’s words, the polis was ‘a type of society consisting of a group of free inhabitants, who lived in an identifiable territory with some kind of city centre, and who claimed to exercise a form of self-government which might but did not necessarily include a foreign policy of its own.’17 In prose texts referring to contemporary settlements, almost every Greek town called a πόλις was also the centre of a political community called a πόλις. The reverse also holds: almost every Greek πόλις-state was centred on a πόλις-town.18
Yet the word πόλις ranges widely, especially in poetry. Even Aristotle allows that ‘πολις is used in various senses’ (Pol. 1276a). The Indo-European etymology speaks to original meanings of ‘hill top’ and ‘fortification’.19 In Homeric Greek, πόλις refers usually to a town or city, sometimes an acropolis (in the form πόλις ἄκρη or even just πόλις), and sometimes the community of people who live there (e.g., Il. 16.69) or more generally to a homeland or country (e.g., Od. 1.170). It is also important to remember that a ‘Homeric’ nucleated settlement (πόλις), ruled by a king or chieftain (βασιλεύς, ἄναξ, etc.) from a palace (δῶµα, δώµατα), is neither an Archaic–Classical city-state nor a Mycenaean palatial state but rather a poetic amalgam. The same is also true of such urban centres in Greek tragedy: they are dramatic fictions. Greek tragedy assumes a basic, pan-Hellenic understanding of what a polis was: in Easterling’s words, ‘a group of people living in its own territory in a system characterised by a degree of autonomia, an agreed set of laws and a sense of its distinctive identity’; the typical image of the polis as retailed by tragedy is ‘vaguely defined’ and monarchical.20 In tragedy, moreover, a given occurrence of the word πόλις may or may not have as its referent an entity that is anything at all like a city-state: πόλις can refer to lands, countries, states, empires, or even barbarian locales. Thus, although historical Corinth was a polis proper, the fact that Euripides’ Corinth (which is a dramatic fiction) is called a πόλις in Medea does not necessarily indicate that it, too, is in fact a polis proper.
The word πόλις appears nine times in Medea, the derivation πόλισµα once.21 In particular, πόλις refers twice to Corinth qua homeland (ll. 253, 1021) and once to Colchis in the same capacity (l. 166); twice in the generic sense of ‘country’, ‘inhabited place’ (ll. 386, 656); and twice in the generic sense of ‘local community’ (ll. 222, 301). Athens, however, is treated more as a polis proper: Medea speaks to Aegeus of ‘your city’ (πόλιν σήν: l. 757), then, not long after his exit, combines πόλισµα with ἄστυ in a striking hendiadys: ‘I’ll go to the astu and polisma of Pallas Athena’ (µολόντες ἄστυ καὶ πόλισµα Παλλάδος: l. 771). The women of the chorus, finally, divide Athens into either the ‘city (πόλις) of sacred rivers’ or (that is, in Greek, ἤ … ἤ) the ‘territory (χώρα) where friends will welcome you’ (ll. 846-848). Athens, then, is a city (πόλις, πόλισµα, ἄστυ) with a hinterland (χώρα) inhabited by potential hosts (φίλοι). Corinth, however, is (like Colchis) a πόλις in the general sense of ‘homeland’; none of these uses of πόλις-vocabulary in Medea insists on being read as a reference to a polis proper. Tellingly, Corinth is never described as an ἄστυ and only once, in the general sense of ‘land’ or ‘region’, as a χώρα (l. 437). Compare the papyrus fragment of a satyric Medea-play in which the speaker addresses ‘you women who live in the Corinthian plain (πέδον) of this region (χώρα), according to your ancestral laws (νόµοι)’ (TrGF trag. adesp. F 667a).22
I move now to the question of space – physical, dramaturgical, and conceptual. In one respect, Medea is like Euripides’ other plays set in urban centres (Heracles, Orestes, Phoenissae, Bacchae). Yet it is, I maintain, rather more like those set on the outskirts of urban centres (Electra, Andromache).23 In this as in many other respects, Medea is in fact most like Sophocles’ Trachiniae, in which the polis is both vaguely present but also resolutely out of the way.24 Medea is persistently domestic in its concerns;25 witness Medea’s potent invocation of ‘Hecate who lives right inside my hearth’ (l. 397). Uncharacteristically for tragedy, the stage-building represents a private residence inside a major nucleated settlement; Heracles’ guest-houses in Trachiniae and Heracles are the others. One side-entrance leads out of town to Athens and beyond; one leads to (a) the Peirene spring where Corinthian elders play pessoi and (b) Creon’s palace. Medea lives in what we might call the suburbs of Corinth: the local women of the chorus, friends of the family, live close enough to have heard her crying with their own ears (ll. 131-138). All of which emphasizes the settled, (sub)urban nature of her lived environment.
Other plays are more generous with topography.26 In Bacchae, for example, Thebes has a palace, city walls enclosing an ἄστυ (l. 1223), private houses (l. 36), back streets (l. 841), a public prison (l. 227), and a precinct sacred to Semele (ll. 10-11). According to Tiresias, Pentheus ‘enjoy[s] it when crowds throng the gates and the city (πόλις) praises the name of Pentheus’ (ll. 319-20). Dionysus wants Pentheus to be paraded, in full view of the Thebans, through the city centre (δι᾽ ἄστεως: l. 855); the chorus have already praised the streets of Greece, ‘wide for dancing’ (ll. 86-87). There are even ‘hamlets’ (θεράπνας, 1043): small settlements outside the city walls but still in polis territory.
References to urban topography in Medea, by contrast, are vague and infrequent. First there is the unspecified offstage location whence Medea’s sons return, where they have been exercising (l. 46). Then there is the aforementioned Peirene fountain, not a polis-specific phenomenon but a natural feature which is synecdochic for Corinth itself.27 Here, too, is the area for playing pessoi (draughts, or perhaps dice) and gossiping. There is a royal precinct in which both king’s palace and nearby bridal house are located (ll. 1137, 1177-1179). Then, finally, there is the sanctuary of Hera Acraea (ll. 1378-1379) in Perachora on the Gulf of Corinth.28 (Paus. 2.3.6 locates a tomb of Medea’s sons in Roman Corinth; some scholars assume that Medea is referring to Acrocorinth.) None of these spaces is polis-specific. Even the suitors in Ithaca play pessoi (Od. 1.107); palaces are unknown in Archaic and Classical poleis.
What about a polis-community? The Corinthians are at least social animals if not political ones: they have a home (πόλις), friends, and family (ll. 253-254). Social capital is indeed the reason Medea gives for coming outside in the first place to talk to her neighbours, so they will not think badly of her (ll. 214-215). Her entire opening salvo, in fact, outlines a clear understanding of what social life in Corinth entails.29 Unlike her Corinthian friends, of course, Medea herself is ἔρηµος ἄπολις (l. 255), ‘alone and homeless’; this word, ἄπολις, has been seen to refer to the contemporary Athenian polis.30 Lysias, in a late fifth-century speech, even presses ἄπολις into service as an antonym of πολίτης (‘citizen’) and a synonym of ἄτιµος (‘deprived of citizen rights’), itself an antonym of ἐπίτιµος (‘possessing citizen rights’) (Lys. 20.35). In tragedy, however, there are good grounds for scepticism about the precise referents of such technical or quasi-technical terms; tragedy elsewhere uses ἄπολις (and similar words) to denote geographic exile rather than political disenfranchisement.31 In the first stasimon of Antigone, for example, a man who recklessly consorts with bad people is ἄπολις. Then, in explanatory asyndeton, comes a gloss on the word itself: ‘may someone who does that never sit by my fire or think like me’ (ll. 370-375). Hecuba, like Medea, is ἄπολις ἔρηµος (Hec. 811); so is Philoctetes (ἐρῆµον ἄπολιν, S. Ph. 1018). In fact, ἄπολις elsewhere in Euripides only ever denotes the loss of a homeland through displacement or destruction.32 In Medea, too, ἄπολις means ‘homeless’, ‘displaced’ (ll. 255, 644-653).
Medea also contains four of the twelve uses of ἄτιµος (or its derivatives ἀτίµως and ἀτιµία) in extant Euripidean tragedy, not to mention the verb ἀτιµάζειν.33 Medea is ἡ δύστηνος ἠτιµασµένη (‘the poor, dishonoured woman’: l. 20), and, in her own words, ἄτιµοι (‘dishonoured’: l. 296). By the end of the fifth century, ἄτιµος in Athens had a technical meaning, especially in legal discourse: someone who suffers atimia, someone who is deprived of political rights.34 In poetry, however, ἄτιµος typically means ‘dishonoured’, ‘not shown respect by the community’. In Archaic law, atimia was a category of judicial exile which entailed, literally, loss of τιµή, that is, loss of respect and protection in the community. The ἄτιµος could be killed with impunity by anyone, rendering atimia effectively a sentence of exile or death, often including the condemned’s family.35 Archaic atimia policed not the internal boundary between citizen and non-citizen but the external one between local and outlaw, and the atimos was rejected not from a polity but from a society.36
Exile is a major theme in Greek tragedy.37 Before the invention of ostracism, which is a democratic institution, exile was weaponized by rival elites, thus becoming crucial to interstate politics and, arguably, to the birth of democracy.38 In particular, atimia as ‘exile or death’ was in Archaic law associated with community-threatening or life-ending offences.39 Medea manifests just this kind of atimia-exile: the decree and associated threats are Creon’s; Medea and her children are permanently exiled (ll. 271-273); they will be put to death if they remain in Corinth (ll. 352-354); she is charged with threatening the royal family (ll. 282-289). Collocation with terms relating to exile such as (ἐξ)ἐλαύνειν, ἐκβάλλειν, φεύγειν, φυγή, and so on, further emphasizes the idea that atimia is a species of judicial exile (also see, e.g., Plu. Sol. 19.4).40 In Medea, too, the chorus sings of Medea’s impending exile in the same way: φυγὰς δὲ χώρας ἄτιµος ἐλαύνηι (‘you’re being banished from this region as an exile, without respect, 437-438).41
In any case, it is hyperbole to read in words like ἄπολις and ἄτιµος ‘the sense of civic rights and protections a woman would have through her husband and guardian’.42 Even Athenian women did not vote, attend the assembly, sit on the boulē, sit on juries, speak in court, or hold public office (outside the sphere of cult). Despite the importance of what Blok calls the ‘socio-polis’ (against Ober’s ‘geo-polis’ and ‘politico-polis’) in Athens, and the limited opportunities for women to participate in public life, the idea of female citizenship is basically an oxymoron.43
In that case, is Medea a metic? The resident foreigner/citizen distinction (i.e. µέτοικος/πολίτης), although an important one, is not consistently maintained in tragedy.44 In some tragedies, metics and metoikia are a pressing concern.45 Aeschylus’ Suppliants is the locus classicus:46 the Argive assembly votes (A. Supp. 605-8) in favour of granting Danaus and the Danaids metoikia in Argos (µετοικεῖν: l. 609); whoever contravenes this order will be anathema (ἄτιµος) put into exile (φυγῇ: l. 614). The king and his people (ἀστοί) will be the foreigners’ patrons (προστάται: ll. 963-965). In Euripides’ Heracleidae, too, Eurystheus proclaims that burial in Athens will make him a µέτοικος (E. Heracl. 1033); he likewise refers to the Athenians’ status as patrons of other xenoi (τοιούτων ξένων: l. 1036). Elsewhere in Euripides’ extant works, however, µέτοικος means simply ‘someone who has moved somewhere else to live’ (Hipp. 837, Supp. 888-900, Ba. 1355).
Some have nevertheless seen Medea, and especially Jason, as metics or quasi-metics living in Corinth, despite the fact that neither is referred to as such.47 Aegeus does promise to act as Medea’s proxenos (προξενεῖν: l. 724), but in Athens – not Corinth. Moreover, the analogy with contemporary proxeny (which is in any case different from metoikia) can only go so far; Aegeus will be at best a quasi-proxenos.48 So Vidal-Naquet: ‘at no time [during Medea] is there a question of a transition to the status of metic’.49 Crucially, Medea has neither proxenos nor patron in Corinth. She is not even an independent agent; at best, she is the erstwhile bedfellow of a royal Thessalian xenos. And unlike xenia, metoikia is a polis-institution, such that ‘the status of metic represents the limit to which the tragic polis can accommodate outsiders.’50 Medea cannot be granted even that status. Her security derives from xenia between elites rather than metoikia conferred by poleis on non-state actors. It is Jason, after all, and not Creon or indeed Corinth, who offers Medea tokens of introduction to his xenoi abroad (ll. 612-613).
Medea’s mythos is not necessarily incompatible with a Corinthian polity or with a more prominent role for women in Corinth than Euripides’ dramatization allows. Ennius’ Medea probably included an address to the chorus as ‘noble and wealthy ladies’ of Corinth (matronae opulentae optumates, Cic. Fam. 7.6.1 = Enn. Med. F105 Jocelyn); Medea certainly speaks of rem publicam gerere in the same fragment. Yet Euripides’ Medea, despite its supposed concern with politics, citizenship, and the relationship between reproduction and the state, contains neither the very rare and typically marked word πολῖτις (female πολίτης: e.g., Men. Sik. 197) nor the more common, less marked word ἀστή (‘local woman’). What we do have is the expected and unmarked Κορίνθιαι γυναῖκες (l. 214) for the women of the chorus. More importantly, we also find the masculine forms πολίτης, ‘citizen’, and ἀστός, ‘countryman’. In Greek prose from the later fifth century, the singular πολίτης denotes a man’s membership in a public, agonistic political community (i.e., in the state), whereas ἀστός denotes him as a countryman and insider in the community (i.e., a native-born member of the community), as opposed to a xenos.51 That is: πολίτης came to mean ‘someone having rights and duties in the polis’; ἀστός came to mean ‘someone belonging to the polis by descent.’52 To some extent, ἀστός relates to πολίτης as ἀστύ relates to πόλις, and one might thus assume that if Euripides’ Corinth has πολῖται, it must be a polis. Yet the plural forms πολῖται and ἀστοί are used in our early sources as unmarked synonyms meaning ‘inhabitants, locals’ (e.g., Il. 15.558: πολῖται, Od. 13.193-194: ἀστοί), and this more general meaning still remained available even after different emphases came about in the decades following Pericles’ citizenship law. What is more, both the citizenship law of 451 and deme-related citizenship tests illustrate the dynamic relationship between the polis as a descent-based society and the polis as a self-governing citizen body.53
In tragedy in particular, the political meaning of πολίτης fades in and out.54 Tiresias criticizes the clever but rash and heedless orator as a bad πολίτης, that is, in his capacity as a male citizen with the right of public address (E. Ba. 271). Antigone, in contrast, bids farewell to her fellow countrymen and women (ὦ γᾶς πατρίας πολῖται, S. Ant. 806); there is nothing polis-specific here. And at l. 12 of Medea, we hear that Medea has tried hard in her exile to please the Corinthians: according to the Nurse, Medea tried to be ‘friendly, as an exile, to the local inhabitants (πολίταις) whose land (χθόνα) she had come to’ (ll. 11-12). These πολῖται are the people who live in Corinth; there is nothing to indicate that they are to be thought of specifically as male members of some governing body. Rather, the natural reading (as in the Antigone passage and others, e.g., Iliad 15.558) is that πολίταις is a generalizing plural which refers to the inhabitants of the Corinthian χθών.
Matters are even clearer at ll. 222-5: ‘A foreigner (ξένον µέν) has to work hard to get along well with the city (πόλις). Nor (οὐδέ) do I approve of any local (ἀστός) wilfully, heedlessly mistreats fellow locals (πολῖται). But (ἐµοὶ δέ) something unexpected has befallen me …’. In this sentence, I read ὀυδέ as a balancing adversative which sets off a negative idea (I do not approve of locals who are rude to locals) against a preceding positive idea introduced by µέν (foreigners have to appease locals).55 Compare Pindar, Pythian 3.71: ‘kind to locals (ἀστοῖς), generous to good men (ἀγαθοῖς), and (δέ) a wonderful father-figure to foreigners (ξείνοις)’; in decrees, ‘both ἀστοί and ξένοι’ can refer collectively to all free inhabitants.56 The internal logic of the Medea passage likewise marks both ξένοι and ἀστοί, typically paired as antonyms, as separate groups who must manage their behaviour towards locals. Medea effectively uses ἀστοί and πολῖται as synonyms; there is no contrast implied between the two terms, which is in any case a logical impossibility given that an ἀστός is a πολίτης is an ἀστός.57
Regardless, the Corinthians in this play are not ‘citizens’ in the proper sense: for citizenship to be non-trivial, citizens must participate meaningfully in a functioning polity.58 And there is no politeia in Euripides’ Corinth. What we have, in fact, is precisely that kind of mythical kingship which Aristotle classifies as ‘ancestral, legal kingships over willing subjects in the heroic period’ (Pol. 3.1285b). Creon is a hereditary sole absolute ruler who governs Corinth from a palatial complex; he appears to have inherited rule of Corinth from his father Lycaethus, who ruled after Bellerophon’s departure.59 There are no checks on his executive authority. ‘I order your exile’, he says to Medea; ‘I am the sole arbiter of this decree’; he is the one who will expel her (βάλω) from the country (272, 274-275, 276). There is no criticism from fellow elites and no formal appeal by the populace to the ruler as in Oedipus Tyrannus. There is no agora as in Trachiniae, no public assembly as in Euripides’ Orestes. There is no open consideration by the ruler of the will of the people as in the two Suppliants plays, no theorizing of sole rule and no court of public opinion as in, say, Antigone. There is some hint of a judiciary when Jason speaks of δίκη (justice) and νόµοι (laws) in a quasi-technical sense (ll. 537-8): Medea supposedly benefits from being in Corinth because she has access to justice, enforced by laws. The chorus likewise appeal to common law, the ‘laws of humankind’ (νόµοις βροτῶν: l. 812). But this smacks more of the ‘unwritten laws’ of Antigone than anything else, and there is certainly no public law court as in Eumenides.
Euripides’ Corinth is in some senses a state. It has a permanent population, the Corinthians. They have a homeland, the Corinthian χθών; there are borders (τέρµονες: ll. 276, 353) from which Medea can be exiled. Sovereignty and control over legitimate violence is vested in Creon, who is the head and sole member of the government. As Mitchell has shown, moreover, sole rule is not nearly so incompatible with ancient Greek political theory or practice as was once assumed.60 Contrary to received wisdom, it was always at least a possibility for states in archaic and classical Greece to be under one-man rule; this even appears to have been the norm for one part of the sixth century.61 And yet: Euripides’ Corinth is not ruled by a constutional government. Absolute rule, whether of the willing or the unwilling, with the same person acting as head of state and head of government, is by definition non-constitutional. As we have seen, there is no political citizenship without a constitution; ‘in a monarchy the monarch is the only citizen in the political meaning of the word’.62 More to the point, the polis-state was fundamentally a self-governing (though not necessarily autonomous) collective of free citizens.63 There remains, then, an underlying tension between absolute sole rule and the polis. In the Athenaion Politeia it is asserted that the Athenian tyrant Peisistratos, who is a non-hereditary sole ruler in a τύραννις (16.2), ‘governed the city-state moderately (µετρίως) and more polis-wise (πολιτικῶς) than tyrant-wise (τυραννικῶς)’ (Ath. 16.2, cf. 14.3). That is: although a city-state under a τύραννις can still technically be called a πόλις in Greek, polis-style government and tyranny-style government are ideological opposites.
Nor is this idea – that absolute sole rule is essentially antithetical to a citizen-polis – restricted to the Aristotelian tradition. It recurs in Greek tragedy. ‘A πόλις belonging to one man is not a πόλις’ (S. Ant. 737). ‘Nothing is more hostile to a πόλις than a τύραννος’ (E. Supp. 429). Indeed, when the herald in Suppliants asks after the ‘ruler of the land’ (γῆς τύραννος: l. 399), Theseus answers that he is misguided (ψευδῶς: l. 403) even to ask about a τύραννος, ‘because (γάρ) this πόλις is not ruled by one man but is free’ (ll. 404-405). In Suppliants, then, Athens is ‘free’ because it is under a proto-democratic constitutional monarchy (see ll. 406-408 for further details) rather than sole rule; Theseus is a king but not a τύραννος.
In any case, not all tragic tyrants are created equal. Despite Athenian distaste for non-democratic rule, the valence of τύραννος was never cut and dried; the word could be used in a pejorative or neutral sense from the seventh century right through to the fourth.64 In particular, τύραννος could at times function as a neutral synonym for βασιλεύς, especially in Euripidean tragedy.65 In Euripides’ Helen, for example, Menelaos uses the words as synonyms in the same verse: ‘me, a king (βασιλεύς), begging for food from other kings (τυράννους)!’ (ll. 511-512). Likewise, Sophocles’ Oedipus (i.e. Oedipus the τύραννος) is not a hereditary monarch but a strongman who has assumed sole rule of Thebes; for all his flaws, he is far from a stereotypical despot.66
In Medea, too, though frequent use of τύραννος to describe the king and his daughter thematizes the idea of sole rule, Creon is not a stereotypical despot.67 He even goes so far as to say that he is not at all ‘tyrannical’ (τυραννικόν: l. 348).68 Like τύραννος, τυραννικός was not exclusively pejorative and could be used in place of the metrically distinct word βασιλικός in such phrases as ‘royal household’ (E. Med. 740), ‘royal residence’ (E. Andr. 882), or ‘circle of kings’ (S. Aj. 749). But Creon’s claim that he is not τυραννικός makes sense only if we take him to mean that he is not despotic; ‘I am not kingly’ would be patently absurd. In other words, his is not the bad kind of sole rule (despotism) but the good kind (kingship). Luschnig contends that ‘To an audience of Athenians used to debating every issue this is the behavior of a tyrant, made all the more blatant by his saying that his is not a tyrannical disposition … after appearing at a private house … with his bodyguard, and speaking and behaving in the peremptory tyrannical mode.’69 But how else is a hereditary absolute ruler to behave towards a potentially dangerous foreigner other than peremptorily?
Luschnig maintains that Creon is a typical tragic tyrant who brooks no opposition and actively suppresses the voice of the people.70 It is under such a regime that Medea supposedly ‘teaches the women of the chorus their political and domestic roles’; by the time of the famous first stasimon, the women of the chorus ‘begin to engage in the art of the city, that is, politics.’71 Women represent the domestic political voice in Corinth, and Medea leads the way as both ‘diplomat’ and ‘good democrat’.72 Attractive as this reading may be, it is ultimately based on selective paraphrase rather than hard textual evidence. Creon may be called a τύραννος, but that does not make him a despot any more than any other tragic ruler who is also called τύραννος. Nor is there a Corinthian dēmos, let alone citizenship or democracy, in Medea for him to suppress. The women of the chorus do not come to political self-awareness except in the most trivial or general senses. The respect (τιµή) which they imagine coming to all women (γυναικεῖον γένος) in the second stasimon (ll. 417-418) is not restricted to women in a polis or even women in Greece.
On one occasion, Medea will intervene in Corinthian civic life. After burying her sons in the temenos of Hera Acraea, she plans to establish a public festival (ἑορτή) and rituals (τέλη) in ‘this land’ (γῆ) in return for (ἀντί) the murder of her sons (Med. 1378-1383). To be sure, tragic aetiologies could on occasion have clear political resonances; Eumenides, for example, the only extant tragedy set at Athens, can be read as a thoroughgoing aetiology for democratic Athens.73 More broadly, tragic myths can be read as aetiologies for polis-formation.74 So Luschnig: ‘Corinth as a polis has lost its turannoi and gained a new sacred ritual. The life of the polis goes on with the continuation of its oikoi, despite the unnatural interference of the royal family in private life.’75 Yet the aetiologies of Medea do not quite fit the usual pattern of linking the mythical past with the known ritual present, for the details are oddly off-kilter; nor does Medea speak of Corinth as a people, let alone as a collective of self-governing citizens, or of Creon is an anti-democratic despot. In any case, civic cult is characteristic of but not unique to the polis.
Even in a flying chariot, Medea is neither a goddess nor a monster per se. Nor on the other hand is she a radical threat to Athenian norms: without exonerating Jason or silencing Medea, Medea nevertheless upholds normative fifth-century Athenian gender ideology.76 As Griffith argues, moreover, Medea is a member of the mythical, heroic, ‘international’ elite class; the play is underpinned by elite, panhellenic attitudes to family and to marriage. ‘The issue of rival elite kin-connections and personal ambitions [as dealt with in Medea] … is a perennial and panhellenic phenomenon.’77 As a foreign princess with special skills, associated with a Thessalian prince living in Corinth, Medea has pedigree, status, power, and influence. She is not, however, a citizen (πολῖτις, ἀστή), let alone a democrat.
Nor could she have been, at least not in Corinth. Euripides’ Corinth is a homeland for its natural-born inhabitants in the shape of a nucleated settlement centred on a palace complex, governed by a non-constitutional absolute hereditary monarch. One finds little (if anything) in Medea to mark Corinth as a Greek-style city-state with an urban centre, a rural territory, and a self-governing citizen body. ‘So what?’ one might ask. Most extant tragedies are similarly uninterested in the polis per se. But that is precisely the point. The natural home of Greek tragedy, if there is one, is not the citizen-run city-state but rather the palatial settlement. The city of Greek tragedy is of course flexible enough to accommodate monarchical, tyrannical, or proto-democratic government. In Euripides’ Orestes, a Pnyx-like hill hosts an assembly of the whole people (πλήρης … ὄχλος, Or. 884) at which a herald (κῆρυξ: l. 885) paraphrases the formula inviting people to address the Athenian assembly, saying ‘Who wants to speak?’ (τίς χρῄζει λέγειν, 885). There is even mention of public offices (ἀρχαῖσιν: l. 897). But Medea contains nothing of the sort. Ultimately, it is neither one of the most nor one of the least polis-centric of surviving Greek tragedies.
And so to conclude. It is by now axiomatic that a tragedy staged, like Medea, at the Dionysia in Athens was contextually political and, some would say, democratic.78 This does not necessarily entail, however, that every Greek tragedy is ideologically democratic or even Athenian in its content (i.e. ‘textually’).79 Tragic politics encompasses text and/or context, and we can and should consider both without eliding or conflating them.80 In this way, one might posit that Medea, staged at the Dionysia on the eve of war, was contextually a charged political performance; for ‘textual’ politics, however, Medea has nothing on Eumenides, Heraclidae, the Suppliant plays, or, say, the Electra plays, let alone Aristophanes’ fifth-century comedies.
Reading Medea through lenses of sex, gender, feminist theory, intersectionality, and so on is a worthy and worthwhile thing to do. But civil rights activism – so-called ‘identity politics’ – is not quite the same as electoral politics, let alone what an ancient Athenian might have called τὰ πολιτικά. A tragedy can be political in the broad sense, radical even, without being polis-centric. Not that Medea cannot be read vis-à-vis the late-fifth-century polis; rather, that it does not need to be, and perhaps ought not to be. As Finglass puts it, regarding the supposedly political ramifications which some have seen in Orestes’ deception, Sophocles’ Electra ‘simply does not invite us to speculate about such matters’.81
In sum, Medea is no doubt political inasmuch as it dramatizes the struggles of a foreign solo mother with some regard for her intersectional experience. In a general sense, it is also (per Aristotle) politikon in that it touches on what it means to live in a community. It is contextually democratic. In its verbal and dramaturgical texture, however, this play has little to say about the democratic, oligarchic, or constitutional–monarchical city-state per se, or indeed about any polis real or imaginary. Medea in fact reflects a pre-451 milieu, in which citizenship (i.e. membership in the politico-polis) exists as a historical reality, but the ideology of political citizenship so important to Aristotle is, as yet, indistinct. The play revolves not around the ins and outs of a city-state but rather around local and pan-Hellenic networks of elite reciprocity. Accordingly, it is a useful test case for tragic politics, and for articulating the difference between politics in general and ‘polis-politics’ (τὰ πολιτικά), between the workings of the socio-polis and the institutions and practices of the politico-polis. Medea may be proto-feminist, but she is neither proto-democratic nor anti-democratic, and the play’s politics are, for want of a better word, personal. So: is there a polis in Euripides’ Medea? No, not really.
I thank Dr. James Kierstead and Prof. Patrick Finglass for sharing ideas and unpublished material and Tim Smith for editorial assistance. Thanks also to those who heard an earlier version of this paper in Wellington, and to the editors. Note: all translations are my own.
The literature on tragedy and politics is voluminous. For bibliography and the status quaestionis, see D. M. Carter, The Politics of Greek Tragedy (Exeter: Bristol Phoenix Press, 2007); D. M. Carter (ed.), Why Athens? A Reappraisal of Tragic Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).
C. A. E. Luschnig, Granddaughter of the Sun: A Study of Euripides’ Medea (Leiden: Brill, 2007), p. 119. See, e.g., E. A. McDermott, Euripides’ Medea: The Incarnation of Disorder (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989), esp. pp. 116-117; C. Vasillopulos, ‘Medea and the Reformation of the Tragic Polis’, The Social Science Journal, 31.4 (1994), pp. 435-461; S. A. Nimis, ‘Autochthony, Misogyny, and Harmony: Medea 824-45’, Arethusa, 40.3 (2007), pp. 397-420.
R. Friedrich, ‘Medea apolis: On Euripides’ Dramatization of the Crisis of the Polis’, in A. Sommerstein et al. (eds.), Tragedy, Comedy, and the Polis (Bari: Levante Editori, 1993), pp. 219-239.
M. Heath, The Poetics of Greek Tragedy (London: Duckworth, 1987), pp. 71-80, whence comes the term ‘intellectualizing’.
P. Finglass, ‘Is There a Polis in Sophocles’ Electra?’, Phoenix, 59.3/4 (2005), pp. 199-209, p. 208.
Allan and Kelly, ‘Listening to Many Voices’, pp. 81-82, citing Colin Macleod, Collected Essays (1983), p. 132.
E.g., A. J. Podlecki, ‘Polis and Monarch in Early Attic Tragedy’, in J. P. Euben (ed.), Greek Tragedy and Political Theory (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), pp. 76-100, esp. p. 96; R. Buxton, ‘Time, Space, and Ideology: Tragic Myths and the Athenian Polis’, reprinted in Myths and Tragedies in their Ancient Greek Contexts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 145-160, esp. p. 150; P. E. Easterling, ‘The Image of the Polis in Greek Tragedy’, in M. Hansen (ed.), The Imaginary Polis (Copenhagen: The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, 2005), pp. 49-72, esp. p. 52. S. Goldhill, ‘The Great Dionysia and Civic Ideology’, The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 107 (1987), pp. 58-76 is fundamental on democratic ideology and performance context. See also R. Seaford, Reciprocity and Ritual: Homer and Tragedy in the Developing City-State (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994).
See, e.g., P. J. Rhodes, ‘Nothing to Do with Democracy: Athenian Drama and the Polis’, The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 123 (2003), pp. 104-119.
K. Vlassopoulos, Unthinking the Greek Polis: Ancient Greek History beyond Eurocentrism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), esp. pp. 147-155; C. Taylor and K. Vlassopoulos (eds.), Communities and Networks in the Ancient Greek World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015); W. Mack, Proxeny and Polis: Institutional Networks in the Ancient World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).
M. Griffith, ‘Extended Families, Marriage, and Inter-City Relations in (Later) Athenian Tragedy: Dynasts II’, in Why Athens?, pp. 175-208.
I will henceforth maintain a distinction between the Greek word πόλις as it occurs in ancient texts and the concept of the polis, i.e. the Greek concept of the city-state as described by, e.g., M. H. Hansen, Polis: An Introduction to the Ancient Greek City-State (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).
J. Blok, ‘Becoming Citizens: Some Notes on the Semantics of “Citizen” in Archaic Greece and Classical Athens’, Klio, 87.1 (2005), pp. 7-40, p. 7. On the polis as a society, see J. Ober, ‘The “Polis” as a Society: Aristotle, John Rawls and the Athenian Social Contract’, in M. H. Hansen (ed.), The Ancient Greek City-State (Copenhagen: Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, 1993), pp. 129-160. At the time of writing, J. Blok, Citizenship in Classical Athens (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017) was not available.
Hansen, ‘Was Every Polis Town the Centre of a Polis State?’, in M. H. Hansen (ed.), The Return of the Polis (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner, 2007), pp. 13-51; ‘Was Every Polis State Centred on a Polis Town?’, in The Return of the Polis, pp. 52-66.
Edited in P. O’Sullivan and C. Collard (eds.), Euripides: Cyclops; and Major Fragments of Greek Satyric Drama (Oxford: Oxbow, 2013), pp. 492-497.
See M. A. Lloyd, ‘Space in Euripides’, in I. J. F. de Jong (ed.), Space in Ancient Greek Literature (Leiden: Brill, 2012), pp. 341-357, pp. 344-345.
P. E. Easterling, ‘Women in Tragic Space’, Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies, 34 (1987), pp. 15-26, pp. 18-19 on Tr.
C. Lloyd, ‘The polis in Medea: urban attitudes and Euripides’ characterization in Medea 214-224’, Classical World, 99.2 (2006), pp. 115-130 argues for a democratic reading.
S. Forsdyke, Exile, Ostracism, and Democracy: The Politics of Expulsion in Ancient Greece (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), p. 11 on apolis and phugas; P. Vidal-Naquet, ‘The Place and Status of Foreigners in Athenian Tragedy’, in C. B. R. Pelling (ed.), Greek Tragedy and the Historian (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 109-119, p. 110 on apoxenos. Hdt. 7.104: ἄπολίν τε καὶ φυγάδα, ‘homeless exile’ (hendiadys).
ἄπολις: Hyps. F752h 18; Hec. 669, 811; Tr. 1186;
ἀτιµάζειν (Med. 20) is ‘to fail to show honour’. The technical sense ‘disenfranchise’ is only attested in much later sources.
Forsdyke, Exile, pp. 10-11; S. Vleminck, ‘La valeur de ἀτιµία dans le droit grec ancien’, Les études classiques 49 (1981), pp. 251-265.
L. Bordaux, ‘Exil et Exilés dans la Tragédie d’Euripide’, Pallas, 38 (1992), pp. 201-208; A. Tzanetou, City of Suppliants: Tragedy and the Athenian Empire (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012).
Blok, ‘Becoming Citizens’, p. 16. See D. Whitehead, The Ideology of the Athenian Metic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), pp. 60-61 on astos, politēs, xenos, and metoikos.
Vidal-Naquet, ‘Place and Status’; R. Brock, ‘Citizens and Non-Citizens in Athenian Tragedy’, in E. M. Harris, D. F. Leão, and P. J. Rhodes (eds.), Law and Drama in Ancient Greece (London: Duckworth, 2010), pp. 94-107; D. K. Roselli, Theater of the People: Spectators and Society in Ancient Athens (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011), pp. 119-148 on foreigners, metics, and the theatre in Athens.
G. W. Bakewell, Aeschylus’s Suppliant Women: The Tragedy of Immigration (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2013).
R. F. Kennedy, Immigrant Women in Athens (London: Routledge, 2014), pp. 49-52: Medea is like a metic; Jason is a metic. D. Lyons, Dangerous Gifts (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012), p. 88: Medea and Jason ‘are living as metoikoi’.
On citizenship vocabulary, see E. Lévy, ‘Astos et politès d’Homère à Hérodote’, Ktema, 10 (1985), pp. 53-66; C. Patterson, ‘Hai Attikai: The Other Athenians,’ Helios, 13 (1986), pp. 49-67; Blok, ‘Becoming Citizens’; Brock, ‘Citizens and Non-Citizens’; R. Osborne, The History Written on the Classical Greek Body (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 92-105.
Blok, ‘Becoming Citizens’ (with a summary of findings at 35-36). See also pp. 16-17 with Brock, ‘Citizens and Non-Citizens’, p. 95 on the ἀστός–ξενός opposition; e.g., S.
See, e.g., J. Kierstead, ‘Associations and Institutions in Athenian Citizenship Procedures’, Classical Quarterly (forthcoming); and ‘Incentives and Information in Athenian Citizenship Procedures’, Historia (forthcoming).
Brock, ‘Citizens and Non-Citizens’, pp. 95-97 discusses the blurring of πολῖται/ἀστοί in tragedy; e.g., A. Eu. 693 (πολῖται), 697 (ἀστοί).
See J. D. Denniston, The Greek Particles, second ed., rev. K. J. Dover (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1950), p. 191, though Denniston does not cite the Medea passage here or elsewhere.
Blok’s forthcoming Citizenship in Classical Athens promises to take issue with such an Aristotelian view of citizenship.
L. Mitchell, The Heroic Rulers of Archaic and Classical Greece (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), esp. 119-143 on constitutional sole rule. In Pl. R. 575a, for example, Eros is described as controlling a person τυραννικῶς, as a µόναρχος, as though ruling a πόλις.
I. Morris, ‘The Early Polis as City and State’, in J. Rich and A. Wallace-Hadrill (eds.), City and Country in the Ancient World (London: Routledge, 1991), pp. 24-57, p. 27: ‘if the citizens became subjects, their community ceased to be a polis’. Cf. Cic. R. 3.31.
J. L. O’Neil, ‘The Semantic Usage of tyrannos and Related Words’, Antichthon, 20 (1986), pp. 26-40.
See, e.g., R. D. Dawe (ed.), Sophocles: Oedipus Rex, rev. ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), on
Cf. Pl. R. 575a: Eros can rule a person τυραννικῶς, as a µόναρχος, as though ruling a πόλις. Isoc. 5.154 contrasts ruling τυραννικῶς with ruling βασιλικῶς. [Arist]. Ath. 16.2 contrasts governing τυραννικῶς with governing πολιτικῶς (see p. 331).
E.g., M. Revermann, ‘Aeschylus’ Eumenides, Chronotopes, and the “Aetiological Mode” ’, in M. Revermann and P. J. Wilson (eds.), Performance, Iconography, Reception: Studies in Honour of Oliver Taplin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 237-261.
Seaford, Reciprocity and Ritual and Cosmology and the Polis: The Social Construction of Space and Time in the Tragedies of Aeschylus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
B. Seidensticker, ‘Women on the Tragic Stage’, in B. Goff (ed.), History, Tragedy, Theory (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995), pp. 151-173, pp. 162-163; W. Allan and A. Kelly, ‘Listening to Many Voices: Athenian Tragedy as Popular Art’, in A. Marmodoro and J. Hill (eds.), The Author’s Voice in Classical and Late Antiquity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 77-122, pp. 105-109.
E.g., Rhodes, ‘Nothing to Do with Democracy’. For the distinction between ‘textual’ and ‘contextual’ generic markers, see M. Silk, ‘The Greek Dramatic Genres: Theoretical Perspectives’, in E. Bakola, L. Prauscello, and M. Telò (eds.), Greek Comedy and the Discourse of Genres (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp. 15-39.
Silk, ‘Greek Dramatic Genres’, p. 27 distinguishes between ‘contextual stability’ and ‘textual stability’. More generally, Carter, Politics offers a thoroughly sensible overview.